By Murali Kamma
The cyclist at Church Square didn’t attract much attention initially, even though he was just going around in circles. Back then, in the era before cellphones and the internet, Church Square was an unsupervised, if not a seedy, public square — a sprawling, unevenly grassy open island where it wasn’t unusual to see gossiping idlers, walkers, yoga practitioners, and teenagers playing cricket or flying kites. Occasionally, people gathered there for a raucous political rally. A cyclist was perhaps less common, but even in the case of Rama—or Cycle Rama, as he became known—it was only after a few hours that he started drawing a crowd. And the reason for that was the amazing tricks he’d begun to perform on his black Hero bicycle.
At first, when he stopped pedaling and raised his legs without losing balance, while the bike continued to move steadily, it was unclear why he was doing it. But soon, there were murmurs of excitement when the onlookers realized he was a performer, an entertainer.
The growing interest didn’t faze Cycle Rama and he barely looked at anybody. Between his acts, he continued to pedal, going around in rough circles—and then, without a warning, he built up his momentum and became a stuntman again. There were whoops from the swelling crowd, but his poker face remained unchanged. As the news spread, a cricket match on the other side of Church Square broke up and Cycle Rama became the only draw in the area. The routines he performed were varied and he did them without stopping the bike or slowing it down drastically. On that first day, his ride ended only after it became dark and the crowd dispersed.
The following morning, to the surprise of many, he was back. Cycle Rama’s act hadn’t ended. He seemed to have claimed this part of Church Square as his territory. There was an assistant now, and the crowd also noticed a small tent that had been set up for sleeping at night. Again, initially, Cycle Rama merely went around in circles, pedaling at a steady pace without looking up. Some people got bored, while others were baffled. A spectator loudly commented that this was a test of endurance. Another person said it was pointless, a waste of time.
“He is aiming for a world record,” a third person confidently yelled. “A Guinness World Record.”
“Really? I didn’t think this kind of cycling would qualify.”
“Of course, it does! Look at him. He’s been doing it for hours. Do you think he is crazy?”
There was tittering, and laughter. None of this bothered Cycle Rama, but after another round, he let go of the handlebar and clasped his hands behind his back. This created a ripple of excitement, and once more the people watched intently, silently, expectantly. When nothing else happened for a few rounds, the snickering resumed.
And then, before anybody could say anything, Cycle Rama slid forward swiftly and, kicking his feet up in the air, did a graceful handlebar headstand, with the bike remaining stable as it continued to move in a circle. Cheers erupted. This was what the crowd had been hoping for, waiting for. Next, raising the front wheel off the ground, he rode furiously on the rear wheel, turning his bicycle into a unicycle. The bike seemed as pliable as his supple body. Following the wheelie, there were other tricks—such as standing on the middle bar, eating with both hands, juggling balls, even dousing himself with cold water—but they were spaced out and he performed them only briefly on his moving bike. The spectators didn’t care. Once they became aware of his remarkable talent, they were hooked, not minding if it took a while for the next acrobatic feat.
There was a cardboard box for donations, and the assistant kept an eye on the encircling crowd, keeping it at a safe distance, besides passing food and water to Cycle Rama. One audacious act, which involved holding the seat with just one hand, brought gasps of admiration and roars of approval. With his legs and free arm splayed in different directions, Cycle Rama seemed magically airborne. But he was very much tethered to the bike, which continued to move unerringly, uncannily, as if it were on autopilot. A flurry of donations followed.
Another maneuver involved grabbing the handlebar and hovering above it in a parallel position, as if he were flying in a circle. The crowd loved it.
“Miracle Man,” declared one fan, but the new moniker didn’t stick. Almost everybody who watched the performance referred to him as Cycle Rama. Cyclorama could have been just as appropriate, given the 360-degree view that seemed panoramic, except that few people would have been familiar with the word. Cyclone Rama would have had more resonance, considering how, in this cyclone-prone region, when the bike speeded up and he raised his legs, it looked as if a jet stream was propelling a low-flying human aircraft. Slender and of average height, Cycle Rama was most likely in his late twenties. Rather intense, with a moustache that drooped, he had curly dark hair that covered his ears and the back of his neck. Although he didn’t smile, his virtuosity on the bike made him charismatic. And mysterious.
Even as people left to go about their lives, others came to Church Square to watch the performance. And the ones who had departed returned later, sometimes bringing new folks to the spectacle. It was as if they didn’t want it to end. That became a problem, eventually.
Church Square had been a more vibrant area before a school, and a convent that dated back to the colonial era, relocated to another area. The name became a misnomer—the neighborhood no longer had even a chapel. All that remained was an ancient clock tower, whose sonorous chimes at the top of every hour were inseparably linked to Church Square.
Church Square has been transformed again. It’s a recreational center today, with tennis and badminton courts, and there’s a pleasant if compact park that includes a play area for children. Alas, the clock tower was demolished, leaving a void for old-timers who had been so used to having their days—and nights—marked by the measured sounds of an ancient bell. Church Square is more orderly now and humming with activity. While it’s much quieter after night falls, one can still hear grunts and thwacks from the illuminated courts.
But back when Cycle Rama came to town, Church Square was still an anything-can-happen kind of place. Even the police didn’t seem to care. How else could one explain what happened later on? Church Square was buzzing like a carnival by the second day, drawing people from other neighborhoods as well. Enterprising vendors converged there and did a brisk business selling food and drinks to the gawkers who milled around at all hours.
This free tamasha (performance) continued, incredibly enough, for days.
Even as some rowdier folks showed up at Church Square and the litter accumulated, Cycle Rama’s extraordinary performance didn’t falter. As the ride went on and on in endless circles, the sturdy Hero bike remained just as resilient as him. The break came only at night when Cycle Rama and his assistant disappeared into their tent with the day’s earnings.
But on the fourth or fifth day, things changed. The light was beginning to fade, with splotches of pink and orange in the sky, when the spectacle took a menacing turn. The previous evening, some people had become restive as the encroaching darkness signaled the end of another day’s performance. Grumbling, as if Cycle Rama and his assistant had conspired to disappoint them, they dispersed reluctantly. Now, however, they seemed more determined.
One person shouted that Cycle Rama should set a new record, a world record.
The effect was electric. “World record…world record…world record,” some people chanted. Like a contagion, this enthusiasm spread rapidly through the crowd.
“Guinn-ess…Guinn-ess…Guinn-ess!”they cried, as if possessed.
How does a crowd turn into a mob? It’s not always clear — but once the shift happens, sometimes abruptly, the mood change is unmistakable. And, often, there is no going back.
When it was all over, people had different explanations, some more plausible than others, for why it happened — for why things went downhill. Was it because a fellow in the neighboring town had set a record for the longest, fastest, craziest…something or the other? Wasn’t there a rivalry between the two towns, going back decades? Then there was talk that Cycle Rama belonged to a humble community, a community that was marginalized, even shunned, by the dominant community. That somebody like him could amass so much money in such a short time had provoked jealousy. Whatever the reason, what happened next was strange.
That evening, the same restive group agitated for the continuation of Cycle Rama’s bike ride. He should keep pedaling without touching the handlebar, they demanded. For how long? Until he broke the world record. How long would that take? Nobody was sure, but he would need to ride his bike through the night and the following day, just to be safe. What? Cycle Rama and his assistant protested, saying that they weren’t here to break any records.
But the group was belligerent, and their insistence had an unsettling effect on the bike rider. The assistant, obviously scared, slipped into the crowd and vanished. Taking over the box, the more vocal spectators asked Cycle Rama to continue pedaling with his hands clasped behind his back. They promised to safeguard the box and keep track of his progress. No worries, they said. A commanding performance was bound to land him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Record. And surely, that would mean additional money, not to mention fame.
Kerosene lamps were brought from nearby homes, and Cycle Rama was off again. There were no acrobatics now; keeping his hands off the handlebar was the only requirement. He could ask for food and drinks, but since breaks weren’t allowed, he’d have to exercise caution. Lit up like a nighttime circus performer, and surrounded by ghostly dancing shadows, the show in front of a small gathering struck a somber note. Sinister would be more accurate. From a distance, the hypnotized crowd looked like a cult participating in an obscure ritual.
“Set a record…don’t stop! Set a record…don’t stop! Set a record…don’t stop!”
This chant was heard whenever Cycle Rama’s energy or enthusiasm seemed to fade. Whether this herculean effort would have led to any record was never clear.
At daybreak, as tawny streaks brightened the sky, the crowd thinned even more. But Cycle Rama didn’t stop. Slowly and less steadily, he kept going in circles—and while there were no distance markers, the stately chimes of the clock tower, punctuating every hour, acted as a time marker. It was a beacon, but a beacon that became increasingly ominous.
The sleepy people who had gone home were soon replaced by folks who, having just woken up, seemed to have nothing more pressing on their minds than watching Cycle Rama. As the morning progressed and news of the world record attempt spread like a jungle fire, the crowd swelled rapidly again. And it seethed with excitement. The show, now running on fumes of adrenalin, had reached a new level of intensity — and the tension in Church Square was palpable. Would Cycle Rama, now looking more like a robot or a zombie on steroids, ever stop?
He did, abruptly. The sun had risen higher by then — it was past noon — and the sweat on his expressionless face glistened. From above, he could have looked like the perpetually moving needle of a giant clock. But his speed had decreased to such an extent that, far from being the second hand, he was no longer even the minute hand; he could have been the hour hand. The T-shirt he hadn’t changed for two days was drenched in sweat, and his dirt-caked feet, moving up and down like slow-motion pistons, looked like misshapen shoes. Had he even worn shoes? Somebody handed him a glass of water. Instead of drinking it, he poured it on his head and tossed the glass aside. His plastered hair and face shone in the sunlight, as he closed his eyes and joined his hands. Nobody knew if he was praying.
Cycle Rama’s subdued, uncomplaining manner and his apparently single-minded focus on pedaling was deceptive. Without a warning or any sound, he crumpled to the ground. There were loud gasps, and some even called out this name. There was no response, however, as he lay flat on his back, his eyes still closed. Even his chest wasn’t heaving. But the front wheel of his bicycle, which lay beside him like a fallen beast, was still spinning — slowly.
“Not true! Not true!” the locals cried, appalled that their neighborhood was being unfairly tarnished. (In a different era, they might have shouted, “Fake news! Fake news!”) Some hooligans were indeed present, they declared, but what really happened was that at some point during the night, Cycle Rama easily broke through the small circle of drowsy onlookers, pedaling so fast that nobody could tell in which direction he’d fled. Others thought this version was revisionist, although everybody agreed that the cyclist was heroic.
Murali Kamma’s Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World was recently published by Wising Up Press. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Rosebud, South Asian Review, and Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts. As the managing editor of Khabar, an Atlanta-based magazine, he has enjoyed interviewing Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, William Dalrymple, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Pico Iyer, and Pankaj Mishra, among other writers.
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